As new monitoring data collected by the US Geological Survey (USGS) reveals record levels of selenium, a toxic mining contaminant, entering the transboundary Lake Koocanusa watershed from upstream coal mines, the Province of British Columbia (BC) announced draft criteria for a new environmental rule last week to tighten discharge restrictions on its side of the international border.
While the news should have been applauded by members of an interagency task force formed in 2015 to develop new enforceable limits on both sides of the border, British Columbia is now a year behind Montana in its efforts. to adopt a water quality protection standard for Lake Koocanusa. and its fish species, and its proposed criteria are far from finalized.
The one-year delay in the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change strategy, coupled with the November 18 announcement that provincial regulators expect another 24 months of procedural wrangling before the standard be formal and enforceable, even as British Columbia continues to assess new coal mines. in the valley of the Elk River, which empties into Koocanusa and is the main source of selenium contamination – drew a harsh rebuke from members of the Oversight and Research Committee of the Oversight and Research Working Group of Lake Koocanusa (LKMRWG).
“It’s deeply disappointing,” said Heather McMahon, biologist for the Council of the Ktunaxa Nation (KNC) of British Columbia, whose traditional territory covers 27,000 square miles in southeastern British Columbia and Historically included parts of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. âThis has been delayed, from the perspective of the Ktunaxa Nation, for almost a year, which is certainly a challenge for us. When we set out on this path, the KNC and its sister communities, including the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho, were quite concerned. But because British Columbia and Montana agreed to adopt aligned standards, parties were assured that their best interests were considered. However, by decoupling this process, we have become out of step and limited in how we protect the waters of the Ktunaxa. This is very unacceptable to the Ktunaxa nation.
In addition to representatives from the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the KNC, the committee’s annual meeting included members from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI), Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), US Army Corps of Engineer and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Representatives from Teck Resources, the largest diversified coal company in Canada whose Elk Valley mines are responsible for approximately 95% of the selenium entering Lake Koocanusa, as well as Montana representative Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, have also attended the meeting.
Current British Columbia water quality standards require selenium levels to remain at or below 2 micrograms per liter, even if they regularly exceed this limit throughout the Elk River Valley. Meanwhile, Teck is actively working to expand its operations as part of a plan that recognizes that it will continue to exceed water quality standards, and that B.C.’s environmental regulators have approved.
South of the border, Montana passed its revised 0.8 microgram per liter standard in Lake Koocanusa last December, setting a water quality protective value that is only slightly stricter than the one proposed by British Columbia last week, offering a standard of 0.85 micrograms per liter.
“British Columbia remains committed to setting water quality targets for the Canadian side of the Koocanusa Reservoir using the best science and data available, and the Ministry of the Environment is working to set that target,” Sean Moore, director of watershed science and adaptation for the ministry. of the Environment, said the meeting participants. âWe will use this new objective to inform the targets of our area management plan, which will then be translated into the permitting process. BC’s work might seem a bit of a black box to everyone, but there is no black box, although I’m sure it looks like it after all this time.
Throughout the long process, long-term selenium pollution levels have only increased as mining continues, and new water sampling data shows that the The highest total dissolved selenium concentrations on record were measured this year in the Elk River and Koocanusa Lake. The high concentrations continue even as Teck spends millions of dollars on advanced water treatment technology, which can treat over 12.5 million gallons of water per day.
“We are seeing the highest selenium concentrations ever recorded at our monitoring sites, including on the Elk River, which is alarming for all of us,” USGS environmental researcher Travis Schmidt said at the meeting. . âWe are all hopeful that the concentrations will reverse and go the other way, but they are not, although Teck spends a lot of money on water treatment. We just don’t see the reductions in watershed level that we hope for, which is especially frustrating for someone like me who has been working on this project for 10 years now. So despite the technology implemented up there, we still see increased concentrations, and downstream from Elk, we still see fish in Lake Koocanusa that exceed the selenium criteria.
As collaboration between British Columbia and Montana fails to result in cohesive border regulations, calls for federal intervention are growing, with tribal leaders from KNC, CSKT and KTOI submitting a joint demand on Canadian regulators calling for the suspension of all assessments of coal mines in Elk Valley.
âWe note with deep concern that while our federal, state and tribal entities in the Kootenai Watershed have worked together to adopt enforceable water quality criteria that protect our shared fish, waters and people, the province of British Columbia is almost a year behind on its commitment to all of us to revise its water quality guidelines, âwrote Shelly Fyant, President of the CSKT, in a joint letter to Canadian leaders. of the regulations.
Erin Sexton, a researcher at the University of Montana, who represents the CSKT in negotiations with British Columbia, has studied selenium in the Elk Valley for two decades and was one of the first to document pollution crossing the border between British Columbia and Montana and its bioaccumulation in the Kootenai. watershed and its native fish species.
“We’re seeing the worst selenium numbers we’ve ever seen in this watershed since I started this discussion almost 15 years ago, so the numbers are really alarming, and at the same time the tribes and federal regulators Montana and the United States should be applauded for keeping their share of the pledge. , then told us it would take more than 24 months before it becomes applicable.
“You’d think British Columbia announcing a proposed target for selenium on its side of the international border would be great news, but what resonates with me is that this number is not regulatory,” he said. pursued Sexton. “This means that it has no impact on mines currently under assessment, and it only becomes relevant when it is enforceable.”